Recently I went to see Rift theatre’s production of Macbeth, which is held in Balfron Tower, Poplar. There was some interesting theatre and good performances. But the real star of the show was the building it was held in.
In reviews and reports of the show, Balfron Tower is described as “abandoned”, “decaying” and a “monument to idealism”. None of these are accurate. It’s a well-designed, structurally sound block of ex-council housing with amazing views across London. People should and could be living there.
In 2007 it was transferred to local housing association Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association, HARCA. Tenants were told they would be able to move back into the block following its refurbishment. But the flats will be sold off.
A former resident, interviewed in Novara online magazine, Sarah, says, “As soon as I moved into that flat, they suddenly “lost” my housing application and told me I wasn’t on the list… They’re trying to push me into private rent or move me way out of the borough, like Bradford or Southend or somewhere. I don’t know anyone in those areas.” A housing officer at Tower Hamlets even told Sarah to try cosmic ordering — otherwise known as the woo that Noel Edmonds believes in.
I’ve worked on the Focus E15 Mums’ campaign, and met people from the Carpenters Estate. Despite being in a different borough (Stratford is in Newham), this all sounds very familiar. Residents of the Carpenters Estate, are being “decanted”, and the land is being sold off to build a new development. Good quality housing stock there is empty. The Focus E15 campaign posted pictures of themselves with their children over the boarded up windows, saying, “We could live here”. They were told they would have to move halfway across England or face making themselves and their kids “intentionally homeless”. We won the right to stay in London, but the young women are dispersed in short-term private lets.
The bottom line seems to be that, as soon as rich people want to live in an area, then the working classes, under-employed and unemployed get moved out. Whether it’s the Olympic Park drawing the petty bourgeoisie in, as in Stratford; or Canary Wharf and London City Airport, as in Poplar, then we get moved.
Populating the block in the meantime are “guardians”, who are paid to live in insecure housing in order to prevent squatting; and arts projects, like the play I saw.
In Novara, James Butler talks about “complicity” and calls artists “the shock troops of gentrification”.
Creating a fictional world in a decanted East London tower block may leave a bad taste in the mouth. It completely detracted from the play: I spent the entire time wanting to ask questions about the history of the building.
But the real targets of our ire should be Tower Hamlets — which is supposedly a leftwing borough council, and Lutfur Rahman is supposedly a leftwing mayor — and the housing association, HARCA.
If you are concerned by gentrification in London, please join with the Focus E15 Mums. We hold a stall every Saturday on Stratford Broadway, outside Wilko’s, between midday and 2pm. In order to fight the hypocrisy in the councils and the driving out of working class people from London, we need grassroots housing campaigns, not hand-wringing about “hipsters”.